DOD grabs sat pix

RTNDA objects to Pentagon's monopoly of high-resolution satellite images from commercial operator

The Radio-Television News Directors Association may protest the government's monopolizing high-resolution commercial satellite images of Afghanistan.

A nearly $2 million contract with the Defense Department's National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), renewable by the government every 30 days, gives the Pentagon exclusive access to satellite images shot from the civilian satellite Ikonos, operated by Colorado-based Space Imaging, images the government has so far shared only sparingly.

"The Defense Department is using taxpayer money to deny taxpayers images they should see," said CBS producer and technologist Dan Dubno, chair of the Radio-Television News Directors Association's Remote Sensing Task Force. RTNDA leadership may contact the Pentagon, possibly raising constitutional issues.

Dubno asserts that media users of the satellite images would do nothing to compromise the security of U.S. military forces and disputes historical notions that media access breaches national security. The government's exclusive contract with Space Imaging denies the media independent verification of facts in dispute—such as damage or casualties, Dubno said—and can limit military reporting to Pentagon handouts.

The arrangement "is a bona fide contract," a NIMA spokesman said. "No force was used. We made this contract for assured access, exclusively, to use any time we want to. It also brings a measure of operational security, although that was not the main objective."

Space Imaging said the agreement to provide the government all its capacity "was a solid business transaction where we bring valuable products to the U.S. government."

Satellite images are available elsewhere, such as from Cyprus-based Israeli company ImageSat International, but satellite experts say Space Imaging's photos are superior. Although Dubno and RTNDA are aware of the de facto restrictions, there has been no network outcry.

"It would be wonderful to have access to that imagery," said John McWethy, ABC News national security correspondent. It would allow me to take a look at the front line, to see what the forces deployed look like."

However, McWethy is not entirely confident that unfettered access to the satellite images would not prompt a security breach. "The images are something we would like," he said. "But it's not killing us. I can understand from a military commander's point of view why they would not want the press or the enemy to have the imagery from outer space. Do we buy all the levels of secrecy? No. But some levels of restraint? Yes."